Isolation Daze

It is 7.47am. The scent of a meticulously-proved sourdough loaf is just starting to escape the oven, carried on the air by the melody of ‘Ode to Joy’, falteringly – but not unpleasantly – coaxed out of a piano by our 11 year-old. Just enough sunlight arrows through the teal curtains to flash off the tarnished bronze handle of the bedroom door as it creaks open. I look up from my online subscription to Le Monde (renewed so I can put my French back to work in my spare lockdown hours) to find our 8 year-old handing over a cup of freshly brewed Yirgacheffe. It has taken him a few weeks to perfect it (he had learnt on Kisii Peaberry), but as the dark cherry notes hit the back of my palate the combination of sights, sounds, tastes and aromas takes me back to last summer on Lake Como – I can almost feel the breeze tugging at my forelock. In my excitement, I close down Duolingo before even completing this week’s lesson on lenition (my Irish also needs sharpening; Greek will have to wait until the summer), and take my headphones out in order to thank h---

‘WHAT?’ “STOP IT!” ‘I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING’ “JUST STOP IT” OOOOOWWWW. AAAWEEWOOGHRD. ‘THAT’S NOT FAIR!’ GIVE IT BACK- that’s mine, no it’s mine, give it to me, I’ll tell mammy, so I’ll tell da – EEEARGH NOOOO NoO Noo. Right, THAT’S IT!

It’s 7.48am , and I am one of the thousands of parents in the UK struggling to process the yawning chasm between the idyllic lockdown lifestyle hawked to me via broadsheets and social media and my daily experience of being stuck in a house with the four people I love most in the world. And two dogs. Coffee is instant; there is no sourdough soft-porn in our little corner of Hackney (the London borough with the third highest Covid mortality rate in England and Wales), but a genuine concern as to whether it is worth going out to try to catch a stray Hovis. The closest Clissold Park comes to Lake Como is how crowded it gets in the sun. My Irish remains untested as we aren’t even allowed to travel to Dublin for a family funeral.

But in the peculiar blend of privilege, introspection, and narcissism that staying at home and now ‘staying alert’ gives rise to, one of my biggest concerns has been my seeming failure as a parent to convert the coronavirus crisis into an opportunity. With all of the spare time we now apparently have, the pressure is on to adopt a new hobby, make the kind of home Kirstie Allsopp dreams of, stimulate the kids’ interests in poetry, pottery, algebra, classical music, quadratic equations, the Zeta Orionis and unleash their inner Einstein. In a step not too far removed from a midlife crisis (a ‘covidlife crisis’?), I even got as far as buying a soldering ironso I could renovate a couple of old electric guitars. Except it is still very firmly in the box… between us, my wife (a human rights lawyer) and I (a historian of the seventeenth-century) have three kids to home-school, parent and umpire between, and two careers to attempt to keep on track. It is difficult to locate the ocean of spare time we are told we should find new ways of filling; it is tricky enough to locate every empty coffee cup and biscuit wrapper lying around the house and get them into the dishwasher and recycling. I’ve been known to get them the wrong way round, and I fear I might have to accept that the novel I have hidden inside me – and the guitar technician – will, for now at least, stay hidden.

We are not, of course, alone in this, and the nature of our work has shielded us from many of the worst results of the virus. The impact of the lockdown on my work has been fitful. Conferences at which I had been hoping to present my research at this year have been cancelled, as has a book launchcolleagues and I had been due to hold in tandem with Dr Williams’s Library to celebrate the publication of a new 5 volume edition of Richard Baxter’s Reliquiae Baxterianae{ } – a seventeenth-century book newly reedited chiefly from manuscripts based at the Library. Many of these events can, however, be moved online: in conjunction with the Society for Renaissance Studies we helped to initiate a wave of online book launches which have become increasingly ambitious in scope {}; academic papers for conferences are being exchanged over email with a view to a later chat onlinevia the now ubiquitous Zoom. My professional diary for the past few months had revolved around a series of planned trips to UK libraries, where I would undertake the bulk of the textual work for a volume of Richard Baxter’s Correspondence which I am editing with a colleague in New Zealand, Tim Cooper: unsurprisingly, he hasn’t been able to make it over for a planned research trip, either. Yet there are sufficient printed copies of Baxter’s letters reproduced online, and we have such a comprehensive raft of digital images of the manuscript letters provided by Dr Williams’s Library, for the virus to leave a minimal impression on the projected timeframe for the research. I can in principle readily follow the government’s advice and work from home.

In the house, however, it feels rather different; the twin imperatives to work from home and to home-school are in constant conflict. We have children who are exactly the sort of person we naively hoped they’d grow up to be as we waited impatiently through their gestation. Strong-willed, with a passionate sense of justice and a desire to articulate anddefend their beliefs, and cross-examine and animadvert any who cross them, they are, in the abstract, perfect. In practice, they are ungovernable. Their school has adapted efficiently to the demands of teaching without a classroom. Weekly work schedules are regularly published online and emailed out; the manner in which the children should work their way through the curriculum is clearly set out; we have more than enough worksheets to keep our printers’ toner permanently at risk of running dry; the teachers call to check on the children’s (and the parents) well-being.

But what both work and children need is attention. At primary-level, none of our three yet have the capacity to study independently for a sufficiently concerted period of time that would allow either my wife or I to string three or four sentences or thoughts together, unless they have chosen the work themselves: an hour’s comprehension exercise on Victorian inventions for the 9 yr-old might take 23 minutes, and pleading with them to check it – ‘and your spelling, and your punctuation, and maybe you could further develop some of your answers on another sheet of paper?’ – will buy back at most another four and a half minutes; 7 year-olds are hard-wired to find 8 different types of ambiguity in even the most innocuous of questions, and so can’t get going on their writinguntil these have been checked-off one-by-one over the course of 13 intellectually impressive but back-breaking minutes; our 11 year old will read and write for hours unsolicited – until they are the very things suggested for her that morning. Hiding doesn’t help: yesterday I went through 3 algebra problems, some apparently unaccountable differences between Runic alphabets and telling the time in Roman numerals by shouting through the toilet door. Balancing the competing demands of three entirely typical children is challenge enough without factoring in work: every sentence I write on Baxter is half-an-hour where I haven’t been helping my 9 year-old learn about electrical circuits; every 30 minutes I spend distinguishing a plumule from a cotyledon with our 7 year old takes me one hour further away submitting an article on seventeenth-century censorship.

And so my wife and I parent as a team (which we would smugly like to think we have always done) in shifts (as we have sometimes done). That in itself introduces a further balancing act: every hour I spend boning up on obscure soteriologies is an hour that she hasn’t been able to commit to advocating that the government should provide underprivileged children with adequate access to educational resources during lockdown, and devising a legal strategy that forces them to ( Such juggling is not new, nor is it the most profound difficulty or consequence of the coronavirus lockdown. It is, however, a very real microcosm of the way in which Covid-19 exacerbates pre-existing challenges (such as employment status, race, gender, social inequality), and makes a mockery of the way in which government by slogan fails to acknowledge the contradictory demands it can place on people.

That’s not to say there haven’t been some notable successes, most conspicuously when we have played to our respective strengths: two half-hour sessions on Martin Luther King from a civil liberties lawyer were, I believe, brought close to perfection by being rounded off with contributions from U2, Ben Harper and Norma Waterson (a genealogy bafflinglyoverlooked by the government’s reforms of the primary school system). In the interests of extending the children’slearning even further I may have to convert one of the quarantine beer bottles that are piling up around me into a bottleneck slide, and use it on one of fix those guitars I’ve been meaning to fix…

Tom Charlton